Getting around town

Butler Creek sixth-graders get a real-life lesson in a school geography hunt in downtown Portland
by: Carole Archer, From left, Jon Ronnfeldt,11, Ronald Zialcita, 12, chaperone and parent Angela Ronnfeldt, Merry Bishop, 11, and Marirose Caasi, 11,  regroup at the corner of Southwest Sixth and Salmon to check their street maps and review their ‘passports’ as a TriMet bus streams by.

The recipe: Measure out 87 sixth-graders and break them into groups of four or five. Blend in a school bus, then pour into downtown Portland. Mix in a time-based scavenger hunt, 56 landmarks and bonus points for riding public transportation. (Don't forget to add the adult chaperone!)

The result: A bunch of giddy preteens with a new appreciation for geography.

Butler Creek Elementary School teacher Lisa Sargent has taken students on this real life geography lesson for the past 14 years.

'We do this at the end of the geography unit,' Sargent says. 'We start off big, looking at maps of Africa, and we get smaller.'

In the last few weeks, Sargent's sixth-graders pinpoint locations on a Portland city map and, by the last day, they're finding those locations on foot. Or, for bonus points, by bus, trolley or MAX train.

The fieldtrip is so popular, a handful of Centennial High School students came back this year to assist Sargent and relive their sixth-grade geography lesson one more time.

'It's great because the kids get to apply their knowledge of geography,' says Marie Strickland, another Butler Creek sixth-grade teacher who brought her students out for Friday's 'Amazing Race' geography hunt.

Between Sargent, Strickland and teacher Andrea Sande's classes, there were nearly 90 Butler Creek students in downtown Portland Friday. Their mission was to find as many locations in their 'passport' books as they could. They had time limits, of course. They started in the morning, around 9:30 a.m. and had to be at the McDonald's at Sixth Avenue and Salmon Street for lunch. The groups converged on Pioneer Square later in the afternoon to head back to Gresham.

'I knew this was going to be so much fun,' said Angela Ronnfeldt, a parent along for the ride as a chaperone. Ronnfeldt's son Jon, 11, and his schoolmates - Merry Bishop, 11; Ronald Zialcita, 12; and Marirose Caasi, 11 - made up Group No. 22.

By 1 p.m. on Friday, the group had found 22 of the 56 landmarks, crossed 63 crosswalks, taken a MAX train but not a trolley; found one stray penny on the ground; and gotten stuck in an elevator for 15 minutes.

The group was headed to the 16th floor of the Portland Police Museum on elevator car No. 4 - just like the passport book instructed, when they encountered technical difficulties.

'We were stuck on the ninth floor for 15 minutes,' Jon Ronnfeldt said. 'There were three other people in the elevator and, when they finally got us off, we were in the boiler room and had to take the steps.'

After a quick lunch at McDonald's, the group was off again. This time they headed across the street to Nike Town, where the goal was to find five athletes endorsed by Nike and get a gift from the clerk.

After roaming around racks of running shoes and jerseys, the group came up with their five athletes - Maria Sharapova, Alan Culpepper, Lance Armstrong, Michael Jordan and Kobe Bryant - and then headed to No. 3 in the Passport, Columbia Sportswear on Southwest Broadway and Taylor.

Other teams were busy collecting cookie samples at Manna Cookie on Southwest Fifth Avenue; counting points on the elk's antlers at the Elk Fountain on Main Street between Third and Fourth avenues; getting a rubbing of a brick at Pioneer Courthouse Square; and figuring out what Portlandia the sculpture is trying to do at the Portland Building on Southwest Fifth and Main.

The lesson in geography is also a lesson in independence for many students, Sargent says.

'They learn how to approach people, how to ask for directions and take public transportation,' she said. 'They find out that, even though things may seem so close on a map, they're so far when you get down here.'

Only one group in the history of Sargent's daylong scavenger hunt has visited all 56 places in the passport book and that team, headed by a Gresham restaurateur, got into some trouble.

'Sunny Han decided to get a cab for the day,' Sargent says laughing at the memory. 'I had to disqualify them.'

Adding to the fun of the day are the sixth-grade teachers' antics. The teams get extra points if they spot one of the teachers, and Sargent goes to great lengths to avoid being seen.

'One time I actually hid under a parked car in a parking lot,' she says. 'I was in the middle of an open space and they were coming at me. What else was I supposed to do?'